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Could experiences and upbringing be accountable for depression?  Could certain personal histories set us up to view the world in certain ways which may ultimately lead us down a dark path?

According to a study publish last month in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, specific mindsets regarding the ways of the world appear to be associated with differences in experiencing guilt or shame – at least in American University students – and may account for differences in levels of depression.

The Study

Chelsie Young and colleagues surveyed graduate students in an effort to determine a link between shame, guilt and depression.  They hypothesized that those students who most often reacted to negative circumstances with feelings and thoughts of shame would be more likely to experience symptoms of depression than those who reacted with feelings of guilt.

To understand why they had this expectation, we must first understand a little more about the differences between shame and guilt reactions.  Based on previous research, Young and colleagues define shame as “a negative emotion that is felt in regards to the self.”  Generally speaking, shame is usually tied to an assumption that something is unfixably wrong with the self.  Guilt, on the other hand, is a negative feeling about something the self did or did not do.

For example, someone who experiences shame about a situation may think, “I flunked my math exam because I am an idiot.  I know I didn’t study very hard, but there is no point.  No matter how much I study or what I try, I will always be stupid.  I am simply not capable of learning to be smarter.”  On the other hand, someone who experiences guilt may think, “I flunked my math exam.  It’s probably because I didn’t study very hard and I allowed myself to be distracted in class.  Next time, I will try harder and maybe ask the teacher for some help in preparing.

While people who experience shame often judge themselves as bad or worthless, people who experience guilt see themselves as someone who is capable of learning from their poor decisions and making better decisions in the future.

The researchers expected that people of different mentalities would interpret and experience the world in different ways which would push them more toward either shame or guilt.  Since they expected that shame would have a strong connection to depression and guilt would not, their hope was to discover which of those mentalities was most strongly connected to shame and also to depression.  A finding as specific as this could set the stage for future research into depression prevention and treatment.

The mentalities they looked at here autonomy and control.  Basically, people with an autonomy mindset believe that they have personal control over their lives.  People with a control mindset believe that they do not have control over their lives.

Although not part of their original hypothesis, the researchers also included measures of impersonal reactions to negative situations.  People who react impersonally, like those who react with shame, see situations as mostly uncontrollable.  Unlike those who experience shame, however, they blame the world instead of themselves.  Therefore, if we apply our earlier example to someone with an impersonal view, we will see that they would react something like this: “I flunked my math exam.  I studied and I flunked anyway.  I’m not good at math because the kid beside me always distracts me and my teacher doesn’t like me.  None of my math teachers have ever been good teachers and something always happens to distract me during my tests.  There’s no point in trying anymore.  The world has made it impossible for me to catch up and be good at math.”  This mentality is, in my opinion, most likely some sort of sub-category to control, as is the mentality which blames the self.  The researchers did not appear to fully differentiate these two in such a way, though, likely because this was a preliminary study.

To test their hypothesis, and to see how an impersonal reaction may be connected, the researchers surveyed 354 undergraduate students.  The students filled out anonymous surveys which were designed to measure four things:

  • Autonomy versus control mindset.
  • The degree to which they would blame themselves or the outside world for negative outcomes (very much related to the first measure).
  • The degree to which they believed they could fix their mistakes, make things right or do better next time.
  • Their depressive symptoms (i.e. – hopelessness, sadness, fearfulness).

The Results

After the researchers completed all of their fancy statistical analyses, a few major connections stood out.  As expected, control mentality was associated with high levels of shame and low levels of guilt, verifying the hypothesis that people with a control mentality beat themselves up and blame themselves for negative situations without looking at them as learning experiences.  People who believe they cannot control events and that there is something inherently and unchangeably wrong with them tend to experience a lot of shame, but rarely experience feelings of guilt.

Autonomy was expected to be associated with high levels of guilt and extremely low levels of shame.  In fact, the researchers actually though there was a good chance that autonomy would not be associated with shame at all.  What they found was that autonomy was associated with guilt, but that it was also associated with shame.  Autonomy’s association to shame was much weaker than its association with guilt and was also much weaker than control mentality’s association with shame.  People who believe that they can learn and improve after making mistakes and that they have the ability to influence events experience both guilt and shame, but have a stronger connection to guilt.

Control mentality and shame were both associated with higher levels of depression than autonomy mentality and guilt, as expected.  The researchers expected that a low (or non-existent) connection to shame combined with a high association with guilt would explain a low level of association between autonomy mentality and depression.  They still found that low connection, despite the unexpected association between autonomy and shame.

Shame was highly associated to depression, guilt was not.

An impersonal mindset did not seem to be affected much by shame or control, probably because someone with an impersonal mindset shucks all responsibility and places blame solely on an uncontrollable and unpredictable world.  Still, the researchers found that the impersonal mindset was strongly connected with depression.  In fact, the impersonal mindset had the strongest connection to depression of all three mindsets.

What Does it Mean?

So what does this all mean?  If autonomy is connected to shame yet still have a much weaker connection to depression than does a control mentality, what is to credit for this difference?  Does guilt act as a mediator?  Is some other factor at play here?  Young and associates suggest that a more in-depth, long-term study may bring some clarification to this lingering question.

Perhaps guilt does act as a mediator.  On the other hand, maybe we should be looking more closely at shame, instead.  Maybe the very things which make shame less likely for people of an autonomy mindset also make it so that the experience of shame does not last as long for those people.

In their research, Young and colleagues discuss that people with different mindsets often come from different backgrounds.  People with autonomy mindsets are often raised in families which support and nurture their growth, independence and sense of responsibility.  These people often experience the good and the bad parts of life.  They have not been overwhelmed with blame or ridicule, they have had good experiences and they have not been taught a sense of entitlement.  Perhaps people with an autonomy mindset are less likely to feel shame because they have had positive experiences in being able to change, grow and make up for their wrongdoings.

In order to live in a world supportive of developing an autonomy mindset, children are often surrounded by supportive people.  These supportive people may also play a role in the fact that their shame is often short-lived as adults; they have people to turn to, to talk to, to help release them from their shame and remind them of their worth.

The Implications

Of course, much of what was written in the last paragraph is my own speculation based on this research.  As the researchers themselves have noted, there is still much more work to be done.  There are many possible uses for this information.  My own secondary hypotheses make up a very small part of what this research could lead to.

What excites me most is that this could be a step in identifying why some people are more likely to experience depression than others.  Finding an answer to that question opens many doors.  Information about the causes or risk factors of depression allows us to prevent depression as well as treat it.

If certain upbringings are found to be attached to a predisposition toward feeling shame or guilt and certain experiences and support networks are able to reduce feelings of shame and boost feelings positive guilt, we may be able to set up effective therapies and support networks for at-risk children and youth.  We may also be able to apply this information in individual and group adult counseling, bringing together techniques such as Cognitive Therapy and support networks.

The possible implications for therapy/counseling, parenting and even educational environments are almost endless.

Young, C. M., Neighbors, C., Dibello, A. M., Traylor, Z. K. & Tomkins, M. (2016). Shame and guilt-proneness as mediators of associations between general causality orientations and depressive symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 35(5), 357-370.


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